FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series has always tested the limits of gamers. The original Dark Souls is an action RPG that is routinely ranked on lists of the hardest games ever made. The third installment of the series deserves a similar warning label. Dark Souls III was my introduction to the franchise, and I was blown away. With the notable exception of Ninja Gaiden for the original Xbox, this is easily the toughest game I have ever played.
Emotionally draining is a good way to describe Dark Souls III. There are exhilarating highs and crushing lows, both of which left me absolutely exhausted. This game can suck the hope and optimism right out of you, but the moments of victory are positively euphoric. After failing 20 times to down a particularly tough boss, that 21st time when you finally destroy it is quite the rush: a feeling of elation that can only be elicited by accomplishing something you thought impossible just a few minutes ago. Of course, this sense of invigoration quickly fades the next time you run into a foe who squashes you like a bug.
Emotionally draining is a good way to describe ‘Dark Souls III’.
Dark Souls III demands your full attention. I learned very quickly that laziness, cockiness, and even a momentary lapse in concentration or judgement all have dire consequences.
One of the most difficult things to wrap my head around was the idea that death is inevitable, and that it needs to be viewed as a learning experience instead of a punishment. Make no mistake, there are still consequences for dying. Souls—your experience pool and currency—are lost when you die, and if you die again without retrieving your lost souls from the spot where you died, they are gone for good. However, once I learned not to get attached to souls and spend them as soon I as I acquired them, I started to cringe less and less every time the taunting red letters exclaiming “YOU DIED” appeared across my screen.
Dark Souls III needs to be tackled from an almost scientific perspective. Each run through an area is an experiment. You are testing powerful enemies for weaknesses and figuring out which physical route through an area is the most efficient. This experimental approach works particularly well for boss battles. It’s often smart to hang back on your first attempt and study a bosses’ moves to determine when they are vulnerable to attack. Rushing headlong into combat is never a good idea, ever. Being cautious is critical to success. If you can pull enemies one at a time instead of facing multiple foes at once, I recommend that you do. There are also times when it’s possible to avoid combat all together. Skipping an encounter might mean missing out on a useful item or weapon, but you can always go back to confront a powerful foe later when your character is stronger.
Each run through an area is an experiment. You are testing powerful enemies for weaknesses and figuring out which physical route through an area is the most efficient.
Dark Souls III drops players into the Kingdom of Lothric, a dark and inhospitable land where demons and zombies run rampant and humans are an endangered species. Your character is an Unkindled, an undead hero who is searching for the lost Lords of Cinder, powerful beings who are charged with guarding the all-important First Flame. By finding and defeating these powerful lords in combat, the Unkindled hopes to bring them together so that they can restore the link to the First Flame and put an end to this age of darkness.
Dark Souls III’s story at first glance appears to be relatively bare bones, but through interactions with various NPCs an entire universe of fascinating lore is fleshed out. Reclusive magic orders, shadowy cults, and faraway lands are all described by individuals who you will meet at your home base or recruit on your journeys. Conversations with NPCs reveal the history, politics, culture, and geography of this ancient realm.
Your character is an Unkindled, an undead hero who is searching for the lost Lords of Cinder, powerful beings who are charged with guarding the all-important First Flame.
While the lore and storyline are secondary to combat, there is still much to be learned about Lothric that will be sure to please fans of dark medieval fantasy.
The combat physics are crisp and smooth, and drop attacks from high ledges and slow-motion critical strikes add spice to even the most mundane encounters. Closing the gap with an enemy wielding a wide sweeping weapon or a big bulky shield and planting an axe in their stomach is made incredibly satisfying by the wet ripping sound of your blade against flesh and the cinematic spray of scarlet blood. Equipping different melee weapons provides players with new ways to turn demons into butcher’s stacks. Slash your foes to ribbons with a sword, beat them to mush with a giant hammer, or skewer them with a poleaxe; varied implements will all provide different but equally gory deaths for those who cross your path.
Closing the gap with an enemy wielding a wide sweeping weapon or a big bulky shield and planting an axe in their stomach is made incredibly satisfying by the wet ripping sound of your blade against flesh and the cinematic spray of scarlet blood.
Enemy AI for the most part is quite clever, and sneaking up on monsters without stealth ability can be challenging. There isn’t a lot that players can get away with up close, but when picking enemies off from a distance they often react strangely. If a group of monsters are clustered together and you shoot one with an arrow, just that one will come after you, even if his comrades are only inches away. This mechanic is designed to make things slightly more manageable, but it looks a little ridiculous when one zombie in a group comes charging after you while his friends, who are directly in your line of sight, just stand there staring at you.
There are no strict classes in Dark Souls III, and you can build your character any way you like. Your starting class selection only affects your starting attributes, and the weapons, armor, and spells your character will begin the game with. Once you progress into the heart of the game you’ll meet NPCs who will teach you various disciplines and sell you the weapons and spells associated with them. I began my adventure as a Knight because they have solid armor and high health. However, those who prefer a caster playstyle might want to think about making a Sorcerer or Pyromancer, and the Assassin or Thief will suit those who prefer to ambush their prey. Whatever your choice, keep in mind that you’re not locked into that playstyle for the rest of the game, as you can acquire new weapons, spells, and abilities that can drastically transform your character. You will even meet an NPC later on who will allow you to reallocate your attributes.
There are no strict classes in Dark Souls III, and you can build your character any way you like.
Not being locked into traditional class roles is always a nice freedom to have in RPGs, and while this won’t be anything new to veterans of the series, newcomers will notice that they’re given a lot more flexibility than in more conventional RPGs. Considering how demanding the combat is in this game, being able to change up your strategy and style on the fly is very helpful. This flexibility is a big part of what makes Dark Souls III such a fun character building experience. While starting initially as a close-quarters fighter, I eventually turned my character into a jack-of-all-trades, investing in fire and healing magic, as well as ranged weapons. Using this combination of melee, ranged attacks, and magic, I felt comfortable dealing with most situations. Of course, if you want to build a specialist you have that option too.
Allocating stat points can seem like a daunting task initially, as there are a lot of attributes to choose from. However, once you get a handle on the way combat works, the roles you want your character to fulfill, and the kinds of weapons and spells you want to use, this process becomes much simpler. In many modern action RPGs a lot of the number crunching is done for you, so it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to build a character from scratch without interference or hand holding.
it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to build a character from scratch without interference or hand holding
Another interesting aspect of building and gearing your character is the weight ratio. Your weapons and armor all have a weight value, and the combined value of your armor and weapons is compared against the total amount of weight you can carry. If your weight ratio exceeds 70% then you can only roll at half speed. Rolling is absolutely critical to avoiding damage in combat, especially when taking on powerful monsters whose attacks can’t be blocked or parried with a shield. Unless you’re planning on wearing the heaviest armors and shields, keeping your weight ratio below 70% is essential. This means that you will have to make crucial decisions about the kinds of armor and weapons you use, often sacrificing protection for mobility. While I began my adventure wearing the bulkiest armor I could find, it wasn’t long until I was swapping plate for leather and cloth. Enemies hit like trucks regardless of your armor, so it’s better to have the ability to get out of the way.
What’s really cool about building your character is that nothing is explained. You’re left to figure everything out on your own, and quite often you’re forced to learn the hard way. This trial and error method of learning is how video games used to work, before developers bent over backwards to spoon-feed players.
You’re left to figure everything out on your own…This trial and error method of learning is how video games used to work, before developers bent over backwards to spoon-feed players.
Allies are waiting to be found in hidden nooks and crannies all over Lothric, and if you speed through the game there is a good chance you’ll miss them. These lonely travelers will join your cause if you ask them nicely, and they can teach you disciplines, sell you weapons and spells, and offer quest chains that lead to powerful rewards. Some NPCs can also help you to take down bosses. However, it’s easy to ruin these beautiful friendships by attacking your potential allies, and such decisions are irreversible.
Attacking potential allies isn’t the only action that carries lasting consequences. The decisions you make throughout the game will have an impact on the narrative and ultimately dictate which of the four endings your character will experience after they’ve defeated the final boss. Having the power to change your playthrough through individual decisions makes it feel like what you do in Lothric matters, for better or worse.
Some NPCs can also help you to take down bosses.
NPCs can also invite you to join factions, groups that provide you with powerful rewards. However, to earn your chosen faction’s loyalty you must fulfill your obligations to them. Some factions will insist that you regularly hop into fellow player’s games and help them with boss fights, others will summon you to defend a fellow member of that faction from invading phantoms, and many factions will turn you into the predatory phantom. What’s nice about the faction system is that your choice isn’t permanent, and changing allegiances is as simple as swapping one insignia for another in your equipment screen.
Invading someone else’s game as an attacking phantom is a lot of fun. No monsters can touch you, and your sole goal is to track down the poor player whose party you’ve crashed and eliminate them. Many factions will send fellow players or AI controlled phantoms to help you out, but in some scenarios you may be the one who is outnumbered.
Invading someone else’s game as an attacking phantom is a lot of fun. No monsters can touch you, and your sole goal is to track down the poor player whose party you’ve crashed and eliminate them.
This world invading system of PVP is incredibly varied, and it helps to break up the brutal grind of PVE. You can be summoned to do your duty to your faction at a moment’s notice, and there is no refusal.
Being summoned by your faction isn’t the only way to jump into the fray. Special items allow you to invade other worlds at will. Like everything else in Dark Souls III, PVP can either be an elating triumph or an unmitigated disaster. The ease with which you can experience the full force of either is what makes PVP such a dynamic and exciting aspect of this game.
There are plenty of secrets waiting to be discovered throughout Lothric. There are usually multiple paths to tread down, and it always pays to check under every rock and around every tree, as there are treasures hiding everywhere. The size of the stages in Dark Souls III creates the illusion of a vast and open world, even though this game is very linear. Being in a world that feels larger than its physical parameters adds a lot to the atmosphere of Dark Souls III. There were times, when I was climbing above a fetid swamp into a windswept tower, or standing on a rocky precipice staring at a range of snow-capped mountains, when I felt like I was in a vast realm brimming with possibility—a world I was only scratching the surface of—even if I was only being shepherded from level to level.
The size of the stages in Dark Souls III creates the illusion of a vast and open world, even though this game is very linear.
Every inch of this world feels thoroughly post-apocalyptic, and a very powerful sense of loneliness is elicited by deserted castles and cathedrals. Being one of the last humans (well mostly human) left in this world, and being constantly reminded of it, makes the fear of death that much more intense.
The environments in Dark Souls III are grandiose, beautiful, and terrifying, but unfortunately there isn’t much variety. The crushing darkness of Lothric is initially awe-inspiring, and it sends a palpable chill down the spine, but the effect wears thin after a while. Even in sunlit areas, shadows consume everything, and the aforementioned darkness eventually becomes dreary and depressing. One can only traverse through so many dusty tombs or murky forests before they start craving color. I was hoping to explore some more alien and exotic landscapes, but everywhere I went was thoroughly grounded in a grey and gritty aesthetic. Considering how gorgeous this game is, I found the lack of environmental diversity to be a bit of a letdown.
Considering how gorgeous this game is, I found the lack of environmental diversity to be a bit of a letdown.
Visually, Dark Souls III is very polished. Landscapes are stunningly detailed and the photo-realistic art style is quite unnerving. The nightmarish monsters of Lothric all look and act frighteningly real, and the art team who conceived such outrageous and horrifying creatures deserves to be commended.
One aesthetic element that leaves something to be desired is the character creation system. When making a new hero you get to choose from a selection of emotionless and dull faces, clumpy hair and scraggly facial hair, and bland, generic tattoos. Even the hair color options are lacking. The closest I could come to giving my hero blonde hair was a sickly shade of green, so I settled for a shaved head instead. While this is disappointing, if your avatar wears concealing armor you won’t have to worry about what they look like, and there are a lot of very good looking armor sets in this game.
One aesthetic element that leaves something to be desired is the character creation system
The music in Dark Souls III is well-suited to a dark fantasy epic. An emotionally charged score of orchestral numbers and monkish chanting accentuates both the unspeakable horrors lurking throughout Lothric and the epic scope of this civilization’s majestic ruins. This style of composition is standard fair in fantasy games, but it’s so well done that it’s hard not to enjoy. The only knock against the soundtrack is that there isn’t a whole lot of variety, and like the consistently bleak environments this beautiful score can become slightly monotonous after a while.
The sound effects are also a highlight. The heavy crunching and moist ripping noises your weapons make as they plunge into monsters take the combat experience to a visceral level, and the roars and screeches of demons have the power to make you recoil from your screen, especially when you’re ambushed by a screaming beast from a shadowy corner.
Dark Souls III does have some minor issues, but the core gameplay—both PVP and PVE—is absolutely phenomenal. If you are a Souls veteran, expect the same blistering combat and atmospheric terror that the series is known for. If you’ve never tried a Souls game before, be prepared for a stiff learning curve. Much more than skill, Dark Souls III requires patience and perseverance to get through. If you’re not willing to push through the hair pulling frustration of defeat to enjoy fleeting moments of victory, then perhaps its best to stay away from the grey ruins of Lothric. However, for the sadists out there who are looking to put their metal to the test in an absolutely merciless environment, come on down.